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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

24 hours in Milan!

In my previous post about my brother and sister-in-law’s trip to Italy, I talked about some of the things we did that weekend in Rome. We focused mostly on the Vatican, spending our time visiting the Vatican Museum and Garden, St. Peter’s Basilica and its dome, and they were lucky enough to attend the annual papal mass celebrating St. Peter and St. Paul, the patron saints of Rome (eventually I will get to writing a post on how you can reserve tickets to a papal mass).

After, Carolina and Joaquin took a train to Venice on their own, then we met up with them in…Milan!

Love this panoramic Joaquin took on his iPhone: Carolina & I waiting for Versace's opening, going into Prada (we can only wish), and leaving Louis Vuitton. 
I had been dying to visit Milan, of course, because I’m a girl and Milan is known for being Italy’s fashion capital. Jaime was less excited about it. We agreed to spend only 24 hours in Milan for a few reasons: 1) Carolina and Joaquin only had a limited amount of time to see a lot of things, and 2) we weren’t able to reserve tickets to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie (I cannot stress this enough, you must reserve your tickets three months in advance to even have a hope of seeing it).

We arrived in late afternoon, picked up Carolina and Joaquin at the train station, then hit up the Navigli district to find some good aperitivo for a cheap dinner. Northern Italy, specially the Piedmont and Lombardy regions, are known for their amazing aperitivi before dinner, where for the price of a drink you get access to a huge buffet of delicious Italian food. If you’re on a budget, you can really save a ton on dinner by timing yourself to go to aperitivi.

Milan's canal. The World Cup was still going on at that time so they had some cool things for kids. 
I didn’t know about the Navigli district until I started researching what to see in Milan, but for those of you who don’t know, Venice isn’t the only Italian city with canals—even if it’s by far the most famous. Milan also boasts its own canals (I use the plural loosely, as it’s really only two or maximum three) once built to navigate the city. Today, they are not used for the same purpose, but the area has become a pretty cool place with many restaurants lining the canals and young crowds hanging out.

The next day we toured the Milan Cathedral. It is the largest cathedral in Italy; one of Italy’s most recognized landmarks, and one of the main reasons one goes to Milan, of course. Some of the highlights include the statue of Saint Batholomew Flayed, the saint carrying his skin over his shoulder (unfortunately, we have no pictures from inside the cathedral because you had to pay a fee to use the camera and the dim lighting rendered pictures worthless). Another interesting tidbit was a small red light bulb above the apse where one of the supposed nails from the Crucifixion of Christ is placed. The nail is displayed to the public once a year during a special celebration.

We actually took this picture the night before we visited, but I like it better than the one we took during the day.
After we took a stroll through Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, right next to the duomo. Apart from the stores from some major fashion houses that are totally drool-worthy, it is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and a predecessor of the modern enclosed mall. Once you walk through the Galleria, you reach a little plaza on the other side with the famous La Scala Theater.

The faces of happy girls in their element. Jaime says my biggest wish is to come out of a mall, Gossip Girl style, with my arms full of designer bags....he's kind of right, but shhh!
I mentioned before that the Milan Cathedral is one of the main reasons people go to Milan, but I had another reason: la Cotoletta alla Milanese. Everyone knows this dish, even if it goes by different names: the Wiener Schnitzel in Germany, the Bistec a la Milanesa in Latin American countries, etc. The Italian dish, usually a breaded veal cutlet, influenced all of these variations. This is one of my favorite dishes ever (I’m a big fan of breaded and fried) and I had been looking forward to getting to eat it in its birthplace.

Jaime, knowing how important this was to me, found on an Italian site a list of the best restaurants in Milan to eat cotoletta alla Milanese. The restaurant was called Da Martino, a little out of the way of the center of the city, but totally worth the extra walk and metro ride. It was a small place, unpretentious, and full of men in business suits and Italian nonnas having their lunch.

As a first dish we shared amongst the four of us two plates of risotto alla Milanese. Let me tell you, I was converted. I had never really liked risotto before Italy and I even had it once in Rome and it still didn’t impress me. This risotto, however, was excellent. It tasted great and with the parmeggiano over it, it was simply heavenly. It was lucky that we decided to share because once the star of the day came in, la cotoletta, we were floored by its size. It was so big that it barely fit on the plate! But it was the tastiest, juiciest (even though they don’t serve it with lemon, like the Cuban version I’m used to), cotoletta I have ever eaten. I still dream about this place. In fact, Da Martino became one of my favorite restaurants I’ve been to in Italy.

Note the tomatoes with some herbs over them. Those were some of the most delicious tomatoes I have ever eaten in my life.
We took a long walk to our car after and continued on to our next destination, which was a good thing because we needed the nap (except for our poor DD, Jaime) after being so stuffed. It would have been a sin to leave any of that delicious cotoletta, though.

The faces of four people who are beyond happy at how stuffed they are. 
All in all, I can’t say that Milan, other than for its delicious signature dishes, really impacted me enough. In fact, I’d say that if you’re making a first trip to Italy, it shouldn’t be on your priority list. However, that being said, Jaime and I will probably make a return trip to visit the Last Supper, which is a UNESCO site after all, and maybe to see an opera production at La Scala (if we can justify spending an absurd amount of money on tickets). Either way, next year Milan will be hosting the world Expo, so it will definitely be an interesting time to visit!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rome's River Tracks, Our Night Out on the Town

When Domenico and his girlfriend Simona reached out to me to join them for a night on their River Tracks boat, I was flattered but really did not know what to expect. I had never heard of this particular Tevere excursion and some of our Italian friends even told us that they were completely unaware tourist boats were allowed on the Tevere (they ended up being extremely wrong about this).

Domenico explained how he was born and raised in the U.S. but has lived in Rome since the early 2000's. Self-proclaimed "starving musician", he started Tram Tracks last year, where he takes his guests out on a tram all over Rome, while including dinner, all-you-can-drink wine, and music provided by himself and his band. This year they extended Tram Tracks to include River Tracks, which is the same idea but on a boat along Rome's Tevere.

Domenico and I 

Jaime and I accepted their invitation and a few weeks back we got a chance to experience Domenico's River Tracks. Like I said earlier, I didn't know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised. We met just in front of La Isola Tiberina, a little island that's right in the middle of the river and waited patiently for the boat (yacht? I'm not very familiar with nautical terms) to arrive. Suddenly, we heard distant music and Domenico and Simona sail by on their boat, already waving and singing and dancing.

The arrival of Domenico and Simona
They welcomed everybody on the boat and we already had pasta and antipasti waiting for us, our places marked with cute vinyls with our names on it. Without further ado, our night began with music, dinner, and later picture-taking on deck while we passed by some sights. The boat sailed all the way to Castel Sant'Angelo, where we were able to get off for a little while and take some pictures and dance.

Honestly, we very much enjoyed the whole night. Everybody was having a great time and some people seemed like it wasn't the first time they had been on River Tracks. Domenico, Simona, and their band had endless energy and they sang a little English and a little Italian, but always oldies (but goodies). It really was a great way to see Rome by night, especially during the summer with the warm weather and the Lungo il Tevere happening simultaneously. Meaning after you get off River Tracks, you can continue your party or shop in the many shops and restaurants set up along the river for the summer.

The tents of Lungo il Tevere from the boat. 
For more information and to book your night on River Tracks or Tram Tracks, visit their site here.

Disclaimer: Jaime and I were guests of River Tracks, but all our opinions (and pictures) are our own. Unless specifically stated, all the hotels, restaurants, and attractions I mention on this site do not compensate me for anything I write (one can only wish). 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Gardens of Vatican City

Note: Post was written last week, when it was scheduled to come out, but Blogger ignored my schedule. Boo, Blogger. 

Summer is finally dwindling down here in Rome, although hopefully temperatures will still remain warm throughout September. Jaime and I have come full circle, celebrating our one year "Italo-versary" a couple of weeks ago on the 21st of August. After having experienced the full month of August without being a tourist (unlike last year where we spent the last weeks of August going to every major attraction), I've realized that August is my favorite time to be in Rome. Sure, a lot of businesses close for the month (like every. single. store. around our neighborhood), but the city is so peaceful and decongested. The streets are empty and parking has never been easier, even in the historic center. Basically the only people left in Rome were non-Romans, which was just fine by me.

Jaime and I have spent a rather lazy end of July and August. We took a break from our constant traveling to just enjoy some time at home. What this means for you is that I'm finally getting to write about our summer adventures!

Back in late June, Jaime's brother and sister, Joaquin and Carolina, came to visit us for almost a full month! Of course it was great to have some family around and Jaime loves to play tour guide. They were supposed to arrive on a Thursday morning, but instead arrived Thursday night, at around 11 pm! Their flight leaving Miami was delayed, which meant they lost their connection in Portugal, which meant they were basically bounced around for almost 24 hours (don't fly the Portuguese airline).

Luckily, their flight wasn't rescheduled for the next day because we had already reserved tickets for a guided tour of the Vatican Gardens. The Vatican offers various tours for the museum, gardens, and St. Peter's Basilica, but the only way to have access to the gardens is with the guided tour.

The tour takes you to the most important places within the Vatican city-state and offers some spectacular views of St. Peter's Basilica from behind the church. 

The Vatican has many fountains, 97 in all according to their website, and we had the chance to see a few during the tour. Above you can see a part of the Fontane dell'Aquilone (Fountain of the Eagle) with the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the background. 

We also got to see the Palace of the Governorate of the Vatican City State (above), where the administrative functions of the Vatican are carried out. The landscaping at the bottom of the picture is actually the Papal Coat of Arms, although it's hard to see unless you get a view from above. An interesting tidbit was getting to see the Vatican City railway system, the shortest national railway in the world with only one station! 

Carolina and I beating the Roman heat!

Tour tickets include a non-guided visit to the Vatican Museum, so we explored that after. For those of you that have been reading my blog for awhile, I did a post last year on our first visit to the Vatican Museum, when we went on the last Sunday of the month and got in for free. Many people warn about the long lines and massive crowds within the museum, but I stand by my original opinion that if you have the opportunity to go for free, do it! The second time we went, it was on a Friday around midday and it was just as crowded as on the free Sunday, only this time we actually paid for the tickets. Obviously one must also take into account that it was the beginning of high season, but chances are if you're vacationing in Italy, you're coming in the summer anyway. 

The Sunday after our visit to the Gardens and Museum, we visited St. Peter's Basilica and also climbed up to the dome of the church, which we had yet to do because St. Peter's Square was undergoing some restoration at the beginning of the year and we didn't want our pictures to have the ugly scaffolding (do NOT get me started on the topic of restoration in Rome). 
"Tu es Petrus..." Closeup of the detailing on the dome on the inside. 
The climb  to the top (because we're obviously too cheap to pay extra for the elevator).
Obviously there were some spectacular views of St. Peter's Square and the Gardens (great place to get a good view of the Papal Coat of Arms I mentioned earlier). It's worth the money, but I wouldn't recommend doing it if you see any restoration work going on in the square.

The view. For people with Photography OCD like us, the fountain covered in scaffolding on the left is a major source of stress. 
Vatican selfie!
Thanks to Carolina & Joaquin for allowing me to use some of their pictures in my post, that's what family is for! <3

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Palace of Caserta

Earlier this year (yes, these past two posts have been about places we went a long time ago yet I neglected to write about), Jaime's co-workers arranged a weekend outing to Caserta, a city about 40 kilometers north of Naples, to visit the Royal Palace of Caserta. Luckily for me, not only did I get to see a beautiful palace, but I also got to cross off another place off of our UNESCO list.

The Grand Staircase

The Palace of Caserta was constructed for the Bourbon kings of Naples in the late 18th century. Its design drew inspiration from Versailles (indeed some people call it the Italian Versailles) in its grandeur and function, as it was meant to house the king and his court. According to Wikipedia, the Palace has about 1,200, a library, and a theater, as well as massive gardens. Just like Versailles, an aqueduct was needed for all the fountains in the gardens and, also like Versailles, Caserta was meant to display the grand and excessive wealth of the monarchy (which it certainly achieves).

One of my favorite rooms, the theater. (Plus this picture's colors are fantastic!)

The Palace of Caserta has also been used in quite a few well-known movies: it was used as Vatican City in Mission: Impossible III and Angels & Demons. It was also used in the Star Wars series as Queen Amidala's castle in The Phantom Menace and later as Queen Jamilla's palace in Attack of the Clones.

The 3D effects on this ceiling were amazing.

The Throne Room's ceiling

There was an entire room just for the Nativity set (keep in mind that we are pretty close to Naples, the makers of nativity scenes.
The gardens are about 120 hectares (almost 300 acres), and stretches from the back fa├žade of the palace, starting with a pools and fountains and ending with the grand Fountain of Diana & Actaeon. The gardens also have a botanical garden, called the "English Garden" with some picturesque trails and statues.

Way in the back you can see the shadow of the Palace, unfortunately it wasn't a completely clear day when we went.
While you can walk the gardens if you want to, there're also buses that take you fro the Palace to the fountains and back. 

The Fountain of Diana & Actaeon

To get to Caserta you can either drive from Rome (about an hour and a half or two) or from Naples or the Amalfi Coast if that is your base for your vacation. You can also take the train and the station is supposedly five minutes away from the Palace. The Palace of Caserta is open every day except Tuesdays and the major holidays, from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm. Ticket prices are 14EUR and include the palace and the park. However, keep in mind that the English Garden can only be entered in a guided tour at certain hours. For more information, visit the website here.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Day-Trip from Rome: Villa d'Este

A few months ago, back when Spring was just beginning to take hold and the flowers were in full bloom all over Rome, we decided it was just the right time to visit Villa d’Este. Now, I’ll be honest: one of the reasons I even knew about Villa d’Este is because it makes an appearance in the Lizzie McGuire Movie and I had been dying to visit. Just a 40-minute ride from Rome, it is perfect for a day-trip to get away and decompress your brain from the many museums in Rome. When you’re like me and you’ve spent the past year and a half visiting every single museum in Washington, D.C. and Italy, sometimes you just want to see something because it’s pretty.  And if Villa d’Este is one thing, it’s definitely pretty.

I've already decided that our future dream home needs a name and a ceramic plaque at the entrance. 
We went on a weekend in late April and there was quite a line just to buy tickets and get inside. I remember it was a holiday weekend, so when there’s a holiday and the weather is nice, the Italians love to get out of the city and explore the outdoors. We haven’t been back since then, but if you’re coming in the summer months, just be prepared for a little line to get in.

But first, a little history about Villa d’Este: it was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. For those of you familiar with the Borgia family (the Showtime series about the family is absolutely amazing), he was the son of Lucrezia Borgia and her husband, Alfonso d’Este and, therefore, grandson of Pope Alexander VI. It was completed sometime in the last quarter of the 16th century, after the Cardinal had died, and celebrated for its Renaissance style and hydraulic engineering that supplied water to the many fountains in the gardens. It eventually ended up property of the House of Hapsburg, where it fell into disrepair until the Italian State bought it after World War I and restored it to its former splendor. In 2001, it was included in UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. 

Today, you can see some of the ceiling frescos inside the villa, although it is mostly empty of any grand furniture (I was completely surprised that they allowed dogs to go in until I saw the inside). But the main attraction, for me, was the gardens, exactly the reason why it is best to visit in the warmer months of the year.

She was having way too much fun with all the water fountains everywhere. 
Below are some of our pictures in the gardens of Villa d’Este:

The Fountain of Pegasus
Le Cento Fontane, The Hundred Fountains.
Our model dog. She can be a poster dog for Villa d'Este.

Le Fontane dell'Ovato, The Oval Fountain

One of my favorite flowers that bloom everywhere in Italy during the Spring is wisteria. I swear if I ever have a house in a warm climate, I'm getting those. 

For more information on ticket prices and opening hours, visit the Villa d'Este site here
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